We Go Behind the Scenes at the World's Biggest Play Structure with the Duchess of Northumberland
Barmy, bonkers, brilliant! Alnwick's Lilidorei is the world's biggest play structure, and it is all thanks to the drive, determination and creative imagination of the Duchess of Northumberland
I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Her Grace, the Duchess of Northumberland three times since we set up Living North and each occasion has been fantastic fun. We have never interviewed her simply for who she is, but for what she had done or was doing at the time.
Living North are always quick to applaud anyone, from any walk of life, who has done special things to help promote our region and, quite frankly, few have done more than the lady sitting in front of me ordering us both fish and chips, fully at home in one of her creations, The Treehouse Restaurant at The Alnwick Garden.
Living North first interviewed the Duchess more than 23 years ago as she was in the process of completing The Alnwick Garden. On the second occasion, she mentioned the word Lilidorei. At the time I noted it and moved on – but now I’m here to discover the full story of how that dream has become a reality, and what the future might hold for what is Alnwick’s brand new adventure attraction: Lilidorei.
One thing you do learn when chatting to Jane, as she prefers to be called, is of her profound interest in the people around her and above all her genuine care for those in her community. Despite this, the shining torch in her life is always her family and her duties that stem from her life as mother, wife and very proud dog owner!
As we start talking, she asks me if I have been watching the More4 programme about the Lilidorei project. Sheepishly, I have to confess it has not been on my viewing list. ‘Oh do watch it,’ she encourages, ‘they’ve made me look a bit mad but the viewing figures are better than they expected!’ Actually, having now caught up with The Duchess and her Magical Kingdom, I can recommend it. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look, not just at Lilidorei but at her character and how her sense of duty to her family, the community and to the castle itself dominates her life. ‘We always have to be thinking ahead, caring for the castle for the next generation,’ she says.
There are some wonderful characters at play in it too. It is a documentary about challenges, about a woman who is determined to overcome them all and of course it’s set in the North East, an area she constantly champions. Narrated by local architect and TV presenter George Clarke, the documentary goes into detail about how the Lilidorei project had to stay on budget, and the classic struggles of how an extraordinary build plays out on a public stage in a sort of Grand Designs-meets-Downton way, but that’s only half the story. At one point the project goes £13.5 million over budget, and we learn how this and other issues are overcome.
Interwoven throughout the narrative are stories of the many other events taking place in and around Alnwick Castle. ‘One was me judging Mr Gay UK,’ Jane laughs. ‘The 900-year-old castle had never seen such a flag fly. But we have to remain relevant, so why shouldn’t we?’ Another episode covered a visit from the Geordie Chapter of the Hell’s Angels, and another the group of naturists who explored The Alnwick Garden led by the Head Gardener, who was persuaded to join them (and enjoyed it). But she’s not doing it to be sensationalist, she’s doing it because she cares for all diverse groups and is genuinely interested in them too. That said, Jane is no soft touch. She simply couldn’t be, to make her grand dreams come to fruition and on budget.
Read More: We Check Out Christmas at Lilidorei and The Alnwick Garden's Sparkling Winter Light Trail
It seems to me that the various limbs of the Alnwick tree that she has crafted in her lifetime celebrate life; they are engaging, inclusive, original and characterful. They will not be everyone’s cup of tea but most will appreciate the scale and creative thought that has gone into their creation. It’s clearly taken patience as well as a positive outlook to get so far. ‘I’m optimistic by nature, I can always see an upside in anything,’ she explains. ‘I get a buzz about creating things and appreciating the problems and overcoming them. I can’t imagine not working, I just can’t imagine it. As I get older I have more self belief, and always remember it’s the details that make the big picture. Projects can be tedious; you have to think outside the box and do things differently.’
Creating the world’s biggest play structure has crystallised the look book of Jane’s creative imaginings, bringing the old age story of good and bad into something tangible.
With the fish and chips dispatched we have a coffee and consider the future. Jane has interest from global media companies to develop concepts, and venture capitalists asking how long it would take to build five Lilidoreis in the south of England, which delights her and riles her in equal measure. ‘Why not in the North?’ she demands reasonably. There’s talk of franchises, books, clothing and all sorts. It’s as exciting and busy as ever in this Duchess’s world.
There are, however, certain things which really get her going. ‘The worst advice I hear is “don’t worry about the detail, Duchess”, but I do, detail is absolutely everything. People who say that I want to shoot on the spot!’ But perhaps a different type of punishment would be more in keeping – she has a macabre fascination with poison, and her poison garden, in which all the plants have to be deadly.
The Christmas season is going to be busier than ever, and it will be all systems go at Lilidorei. Amongst all this, I wonder if she has any regrets. She thinks for a minute. ‘I think you regret the things you haven’t done rather than those you have. I wish this place was twice the size,’ she says as she looks around the restaurant. ‘Some parts of the garden still infuriate me, and I wish we had been able to make Lilidorei twice the size too.’
As well as dreaming up and delivering projects such as the The Alnwick Garden and Lilidorei, and managing the day-to-day upkeep of the castle, the Duchess has a diary that would make many of us weep. She is patron of around 150 charities and as Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland there are always demands on her time.
With Lilidorei complete, I make an assumption that Jane has the welfare of youngsters at heart, and while she does, it’s actually the other end of life’s spectrum that preoccupies her most. ‘The people I’m most interested in are older people because I’ve learned so much about loneliness. The drop-in centre at the garden has made such a difference, and people are genuinely grateful to have a place to meet,’ she says.
Jane also always has a cause, is often a touch mischievous, and is always asking questions of herself and others. She exudes real delight when talking about Lilidorei, which is now open to the public. ‘Lilidorei is all about Christmas and there are various clans with fairies talking to you. There are elves, trolls and goblins and there are huge mushrooms. We wanted to make it so children didn’t want to be on their mobile phones, but we wanted to engage with them, to spook them with trolls, goblins and hob-goblins. Lilidorei is intended to ask children hundreds of questions but give them no answers,’ Jane explains.
This plays out as soon as you approach the gates. The idea is clearly to have fun, but at the same time to encourage children to think for themselves. ‘Christmas is going to be really magical,’ she continues, and her excitement is infectious.
I suspect it’s that excitement and passion that got her and her team through the various challenges during the build, not least having the imagination to share in Jane’s vision in the first place. There’s also significant determination with which to armour her passion. ‘Anyone telling me not to do something is a red rag to a bull,’ she says. This might be anyone from a member of her family to a site manager, but she actively celebrates teamwork and knows when things have to change. As she says in the documentary: ‘I don’t like being taken for a fool. I’m not stupid and I can see when things are going wrong.’ You can see this clearly in her handling of Lilidorei when plans clearly had to change. ‘I don’t care what people think of me, and on the whole I think it’s great if you don’t worry what people think about you,’ she adds. If this sounds like she’s uncaring, nothing could be further from the truth. Tough and determined yes, lacking in care, absolutely not.
‘Lilidorei is all about Christmas and there are various clans with fairies talking to you. There are elves, trolls and goblins and there are huge mushrooms’
Towards the end of the series of The Duchess and Her Magical Kingdom, as Lilidorei prepares to open, we are introduced to Jane’s husband Ralph, The Duke of Northumberland who in contrast to the spontaneity and creative immediacy of his wife is altogether more considered, and that’s what makes what he says so revealing. ‘I think she likes to shock us. I don’t like the stuffed dogs, but the more we say we don’t like them, the more arrive!’ More tellingly, he confides to camera: ‘I have huge admiration for anybody doing something like this, and she’s done it brilliantly. She’s been incredibly determined, she works hard and she’s passionate. I think it’s staggering, I really do.’
Whatever comes next will be fascinating, and something else will come, that’s for sure. ‘Boredom for me is the biggest killer,’ Jane says. ‘I just have to be busy. Anyone can have an idea but the challenge is other people building it. Lilidorei has been a massive team effort and no one person has been more important than another.’
So is she mad? Of course she is – a bit – but all the best creative thinkers are, as the hugely affable Lilidorei Project Co-Ordinator, Aidan Harrison put it: ‘Barmy. Bonkers. Brilliant!’
At one point during our conversation, I try to find out what really makes her tick, and after some thought she declares the word ‘awe’. It’s that feeling of wonder, of pulling something off, of success against the odds, and the importance of having a feeling of awe in your life. ‘Why should it be so extraordinary that we have Lilidorei in the North?’ she asks.
As I leave, I look around and see an historic landscape as well as the more contemporary garden behind me, the treehouse and a huge playground to make children (and adults) think, as well as smile. The person who has done most of the creative heavy lifting in these more recent projects, and the person with such unique vision, is now getting into her car ready to take her dog for a walk. She may not be a typical aristocrat but that’s just fine with us, because if she was, the North East would be all the poorer.